IS LESS MORE?
This originally was going to be a rant about how books are losing out to full-text online articles and internet sources in the age of keyword searching. Because people who use internet and databases can search through not only titles and subject headings, but abstracts and even full-text as well, they have a far greater chance of finding items that exactly match their needs than they have when searching book catalogs. I was going to argue for more extended descriptions of books -- more subject headings and fuller contents notes. I want contents notes to tell me what plays are in an anthology, what songs are on an album, and even what the chapter titles are.
I am willing to be confused with the facts, though, so I talked to some of my favorite catalogers, who asked me whether the fuller descriptions that would make it easier for ME to find what I need might actually make it harder for ordinary end-users to find what they want.
After all, I tend to have highly specific questions, and I know exactly how and where to ask them. A friend of mine asked me to find information about a 19th century doctor in an Indiana reformatory or penitentiary who performed vasectomies on sex offenders, so I went to HotBot and did the Boolean statement (vasectomy or sterilization) and Indiana and (penitentiary or reformatory) and found a paper delivered at a conference on the history of medicine. That the same search yielded nothing in OCLC didn't mean that there wasn't information about the aptly named Dr. Sharp in books; it simply meant that if it WAS in individual chapters of books, the fact that the search was conducted only through titles and the one or two subject headings assigned to each book meant that my chances of finding it were restricted.
My friends said I should think instead about ordinary freshmen who have been assigned to find things about cloning. They can't really explain exactly what it is they want to know about cloning, but they think they'll know it when they see it -- or at least they'll know with certainty that a whole lot of things they retrieve aren't it. They don't read help screens, don't look at subject subdivisions, don't use thesauruses or boolean logic, don't use the "more like this" option, and don't understand that it might matter whether their results are articles from People Magazine or American Biology Teacher. All they want to do is type "cloning" into a search engine and have the exact things they want come up in the first page of results.
Instead, they get millions of hits, many of which, even most of which, are drecch, and they walk away frustrated. For them, a catalog that not only searched through subject headings and book titles but also through chapter titles would just make for an even longer set of results to look through, many of which would be only marginally useful.
The question, my cataloger friends tell me, is "who is the catalog for?" Do we want to make it easier for our users to find things, in their own feckless fashion? Or do we want to make it easier for US to find things, even if it makes it harder for our ordinary users?
This isn't a new question; it's been a recent topic of debate for professional searchers, accustomed to achieving splendid precision with Dialog commands, who find the public, web-based versions of their favorite databases to be so much more end-user-friendly that they are far less precise than the Dialog versions.
But it is a question that affects the chances that a user who needs the specific information available inside one specific book will find that book. As people who value the book, do we want to increase the likelihood of people finding the exact books they need? And will full subject and content cataloging do that, or merely overload our ordinary, casual users?
...even as a stimulus for reminiscence, a treasured book is more important than a dance card, or the photo that freezes you in mid-teeter at the edge of the Grand Canyon, because such a book can be a significant event in the history of your reading, and your reading (provided you are significant) should be an essential segment of your character and your life.
William H. Gass. "In Defense of the Book." Harper's Magazine, November, 1999
NOTES ON CURRENT READING
The article I just quoted, in the November Harper's, is a ringing endorsement of books, traditional libraries, and the pleasures of physically browsing the shelves; it's an equally ringing condemnation of the cult of information for the sake of information. Well worth a read, even if he doesn't understand that many library users are in fact seeking not eternal wisdom but the book value of a used car, the recipe for bourbon pecan pound cake, the address of their third cousin in Dayton...
I liked MaryEllen Bates' article on "The Making of a Super Searcher" in the November/December issue of Searcher, which is not included on Searcher's web site. Especially interesting, I would think, for anyone seeking a midcareer job change or promotion. It's about the identifying signs of her ideal "mid-level, experienced online researcher," one who can move into a job and "hit the ground running." Among the attributes and experience she looks for are people skills, proven ability to search the web, curiosity, flexibility, persistence, enthusiasm about learning new things, and a a wide range of interests.
To which I would add a love of word games -- the librarian who in answering a question about cancer automatically thinks "cancer or carcinoma or tumor or oncology" is likely to find more answers than the person for whom "cancer" is sufficient. But I would also add the understanding that for most questions there is not just one correct answer, but a variety of possible good answers depending on the patron's purposes. As MaryEllen points out, a good reference interview is the key to finding your user's right answers.
If you're interested in how well the new portal version of AltaVista works, you should check out an analysis by Greg Notess, at http://notess.com/search/lists/archive/news-v1-n6.shtml, which details what features have been added and what has been lost in the new model AltaVista.
The December "What's Next for the Web?" issue of Yahoo! Internet Life, which I usually read primarily for the web reviews, was just jam-packed with interesting content, including a joint interview with Vinton Cerf and Tim Berners-Lee and a fascinating panel discussion with a notable collection of science fiction writers. It also had speculation on the future by luminaries like Robert Coover (on books), Alan Dershowitz (on law), Roger Ebert (on censorship), Philip Glass (on music), and Douglas Rushkoff (on advertising).
Finally, "In Crisis Is Opportunity: Making the Best of a Public Relations Problem," by Lani Yoshimura in Marketing Library Services, relays what she learned the hard way about being prepared for and gracefully handling reporters bent on writing a negative story about the library. Read it online at http://www.infotoday.com/mls/oct/story.htm.
You are welcome to copy and distribute or e-mail any of my own articles (but not those by my guest writers) as long as you retain this copyright statement:
Ex Libris: an E-Zine for Librarians and Other Information Junkies.
Copyright, Marylaine Block, 1999.